Channing Dungey was named entertainment president of Disney's ABC television network, becoming the first African American to lead a major broadcast network at a time when lack of diversity in Hollywood has come under increasing scrutiny.
Dungey on Wednesday replaced Paul Lee, who was widely credited with promoting more prime-time shows with people of color in front of and behind the camera. But Lee tangled with his boss Ben Sherwood, who is co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, and ABC's ratings have tumbled in recent months.
Dungey, 46, who has been a Walt Disney Co. executive for more than a decade, helped develop ABC hits including "Scandal" and "How to Get Away With Murder." In a statement, she said she was "thrilled and humbled that Ben has entrusted me with this tremendous opportunity."
The entertainment industry has been under increasing pressure to promote more women and people of color. An UCLA report last year on Hollywood diversity found that 96% of TV network and studio heads were white, and 71% were men.
The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences this year has been consumed by controversy after nominating a slate of 20 white actors for top awards at the Oscars, which will be televised by ABC later this month.
"Kudos to ABC," said Darnell Hunt, director of UCLA's Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies. "People of color make up nearly 40% of the American public and they are heavy users of TV and film. ... Having executives — not just show runners, actors and writers — who are sensitive to these ideas and are in the position to greenlight, just makes business sense."
Television networks in recent years have been more aggressive than movie studios about promoting shows that better reflect America's diversity.
ABC has long been a leader on that front, an effort that took on added importance during Lee's 51/2-year tenure. Lee, 55, was a forceful champion of shows with minorities in starring roles including "black-ish" and "Fresh Off the Boat" as well as earlier successes such as "Scandal."
"ABC has really taken the lead in terms of trying to match their programming to a clearly diversifying audience," Hunt said. "They certainly looked at America … and decided they wanted to be in that business. So it makes sense to have the first African American woman to head the network."
The shake-up also comes as ABC was slipping in the ratings, particularly in the last two months. ABC's audience has declined 13% this season, but it remains in third place in overall viewers, behind CBS and NBC, by averaging nearly 6.7 million viewers a night.
However, this season the Disney-owned network fell into fourth place among viewers aged 18 to 49, the demographic that advertisers pay a premium to reach.
The network has suffered from audience erosion for some of ABC's older hits and with some high-profile misses, including a reboot of "The Muppets," serial killer drama "Wicked City" and North Dakota oil-rig worker family drama called "Blood & Oil."
There also was considerable tension between Lee and Sherwood, who took over Disney's entertainment TV networks a year ago.
Lee was fiercely protective of the ABC broadcast network brand and prime-time shows.
Sherwood, however, has been more open to experimenting with ways to build Hulu, the streaming service co-owned by Disney, and selling shows to emerging platforms like Netflix and Amazon, according to a person familiar with the tension but not authorized to discuss internal matters.
Until Wednesday, Dungey was most recently the No. 2 creative executive at the network.
"Channing is a gifted leader and a proven magnet for top creative talent, with an impressive record of developing compelling, breakthrough programming that resonates with viewers," Sherwood, who also serves as president of the Disney/ABC Television Group, said in a statement.
Sherwood noted that Dungey also has been instrumental in the development and success of ABC's biggest hits over the last decade.
As executive vice president of drama development, movies and miniseries for ABC's Entertainment Group, Dungey was responsible for nurturing such ABC hits as "Quantico" and "Criminal Minds," which runs on CBS. She also helped develop "Army Wives" for Lifetime.
During a TV pitch meeting in the summer of 2004, an ABC executive was impressed by Dungey and recruited her to join the drama team at ABC Studios, which was then known as Touchstone Television.
Dungey, who grew up in Sacramento, graduated magna cum laude in 1991 from the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
She has taught a course at UCLA and was a founding member of the Step Up Women's Network, a national nonprofit membership organization dedicated to strengthening community resources for women and girls. Dungey is married and has a daughter.
The move was a surprise, although there have been murmurs of discord at the network. ABC wanted to announce the leadership change during a brief lull in the important TV pilot production season to ensure a smooth transition.
ABC executives have already picked this year's crop of pilots, which have begun shooting. The new shows will be selected in late April and early May. Lee's current contract was set to end later this year.